Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria is a masterpiece of atmosphere and color, but it doesn’t exactly, you know, make sense. In taking on a remake (or reimagining, or however it’s being designated) of Suspiria, director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and screenwriter David Kajganich have preserved all the weirdness of Argento’s original (and added plenty of their own), while delivering a movie with more substantial character development, thematic resonance and plot cohesion. The new Suspiria doesn’t always make sense, either, but at least it always has a sense of purpose and momentum, anchored by strong performances and an atmosphere at least as unsettling as what Argento created.
Like the original, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is set in Germany (this time in Berlin) in 1977, although in 2018 that makes the movie a period piece, and the historical context is a major background element, with constant news reports about the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 and other activities of the left-wing Red Army Faction. The legacy of Nazism and World War II also hangs heavily over the story, especially in the character of Dr. Josef Klemperer, an aging psychiatrist who begins the movie as a confidant for troubled dancer Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz). As in the original movie, Patricia’s mysterious exit from a Berlin dance company coincides with the arrival of American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who’s taken under the wing of the company’s mysterious leader.
Here, that’s Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a dance legend and Susie’s idol. But Blanc isn’t only a brilliant dancer and choreographer; she’s also the head of a coven of witches that operates out of the building where the dancers live, work and perform. The witches want Susie for some sort of important ritual, and soon she’s falling under their spell, while also rising in the company’s ranks. That concerns her new friend Sara (Mia Goth), as well as Dr. Klemperer, who starts investigating the company after Patricia disappears.
Although Kajganich’s screenplay gives Guadagnino plenty of plot to get through, the movie is still languid and elliptical, running two and a half hours (nearly a full hour longer than Argento’s version) and taking long digressions into aggressive, primal dance sequences and surreal visions of Susie’s childhood growing up in a Mennonite community in Ohio. One of those dance sequences provides the movie’s most brutal moment, as Susie’s movements are mystically projected into attacks on a fellow dancer in another part of the studio.
Horrors like that are sparse, until the over-the-top finale, and Guadagnino is more concerned with an eerie, disturbing tone than with scaring the audience. As Susie falls further and further under the witches’ spell, she loses track of who she is, even while Sara and Klemperer work in vain to save her soul. Johnson brings a beguiling twinkle to Susie, who, like Johnson’s Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades movies, hides a naughty, sexually deviant side beneath her seemingly innocent façade. Sara, not Susie, turns out to be the movie’s pure-hearted heroine, with Klemperer as its tragic figure, longing for the wife (played in a cameo by original Suspiria star Jessica Harper) he lost during the war.
Making Klemperer the movie’s unlikely emotional core proves problematic when he’s played, under layers of not-always-convincing makeup, by Swinton, under the pseudonym Lutz Ebersdorf. The stunt casting is more distracting than illuminating, and Guadagnino also strays a bit too far into silliness in the drawn-out, gore-soaked finale. But overall Suspiria looks fantastic, mostly eschewing Argento’s trademark color-saturated palette for something grittier and looser, more in the vein of paranoid ’60s and ’70s psychodramas like Rosemary’s Baby and Brian De Palma’s Sisters.
The music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is jittery and intense, and the company’s dances (choreographed by Damien Jalet) are equally visceral. It all contributes to a sense of things spiraling out of control, less for Susie and more for the people around her, including a country that is very much in turmoil. Guadagnino and Kajganich have taken Argento’s abstract fairy tale and grounded it in reality, while keeping it just as lush and overwhelmingly strange.